As Zimbabwe heads to the polls, I remember my friends from north of the Limpopo. In South Africa, like much of the world, Zimbabweans are a permanent feature. My friends have dignity. Their country should too.
Smith, Mugabe, the Gukurahundi, Tsvangirai, land expropriation, hyperinflation, Murambatsvina and the 2008 post-election violence – forget them. What most reminds me of Zimbabwe is the music video channel Trace. It features video girls, rappers and throbbing parties on beaches and yachts. The crass materialism is designed to ignite our wildest aspirations. It plays the music we danced to in the visceral days when I first came to study in Johannesburg.
We were at a private institution linked to a foreign university. It was perfect for students from across the continent, particularly young Zimbabweans, politically connected or not. Listening to these tracks – the obsession with autotune, the intoxicating choruses, the body-winding melodies and synthetic base – takes me back to my room in res. We’d stumble into each other’s rooms, into class and onto a party somewhere across Jozi.
It seems weird saying many of those friends were Zimbabwean. In that bubble of books and booze I don’t remember people seeming as dissected by their citizenship as they often seem now, years later. Those friends were there to lift weights, whether it was in the gym after a day of studying or raising my spirits from the floor after a relationship crisis. They weren’t the Zimbabweans of the MDC-T, Zanu-PF, white or black. They had affiliations and opinions on politics, but first they were friends who humoured my jokes, picked me up when I was down and spent afternoons with me drinking and studying.
It’s easy to make light of Zimbabwe – Bob’s incredible health, the millions of Zimbabweans in South Africa, the worthless Zim dollar, and its one-eyed media. During elections, we focus on the corrupt politics of an election-stealing party and a shambolic state, that one above the Limpopo we use as an example of “what South Africa could become if things go wrong”. It’s harder to see the nuances, the people and the families.
These elections are being touted as the most important moment in Zimbabwe’s history since 1980, when Bob Marley remained on stage while teargas was fired into the crowd that stormed the independence celebrations. The country goes to the polls on Wednesday and the outcome will be fundamental in determining not only the future of the country’s leadership but also the future of millions of lives, both in Zimbabwe, its diaspora and the many lives connected to that diaspora.
Peter Godwin’s The Fear captures the brutal side of the 2008 presidential run-off (that never eventuated) and the heroic politicians and activists who were subjected to violence for their political beliefs. He mentions visiting a hospital and meeting the victims of torture. “One of their number died at the place they were beaten, they tell us, a torture camp they call Gum Tree Base. Another died here in this hospital, from his wounds. The rest were traumatised and terrified. They have been beaten on the soles of their feet, and on their buttocks – think of bone-deep lacerations with no skin left, think of being flayed alive. Think of swollen, broken feet, of people unable to stand, unable to sit, unable to lie on their backs because of the blinding pain. Husbands and wives have been cuffed and beaten alike. Their wrists still bear the scars.”
The violence forced MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai to accept a government of national unity negotiated by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. In the following years, Tsvangirai’s romances became world news. His party attempted change where it had power, but Mugabe’s Zanu-PF remained in control. The economy stabilised and has crept back towards the days before inflation reached figures with too many zeros to pronounce. There was a new constitution. Mugabe seemed the ultimate Lazarus, reportedly dying, living, dying, living. Diamonds have been dug from Marange and the government got major corporations to agree to indigenisation deals.
We know this vote is already flawed. Activists have been arrested and ballots have been lost. The security sector wasn’t reformed after 2008 and some generals have warned they will not accept an MDC win. Astonishingly, reports on Tuesday said the voters’ roll is difficult or impossible to obtain for opposition parties and civil society. Nevertheless, some of those involved, like Roy Bennett who I spoke to last week, believe the country is ripe for change and a stolen election could lead to an uprising.
Zimbabwe needs democracy. The stoic incredulity I’ve seen in my friends, colleagues and acquaintances is admirable. They seem as shocked as I am with certain aspects of the politics, yet their lives have been so influenced by them that they seem to reluctantly live with an acceptance and an experience with which I cannot relate. That reality has pushed many of them across the globe. It has made Zimbabweans an important part of South African life and an important part of my life.
But I’m tired of the situation. I’m tired of friends having to jump the Limpopo River to find a job they’re overqualified for. I’m dead to the ridiculous and hilarious stories of what goes on – the abuses of the police and government. It’s wrong that Zimbabwe’s politics seem normal, that we can be outraged when we shine a spotlight on certain occasions but are otherwise resigned, like watching a movie where we know it ends in shit.
This may be the moment that changes the situation or it may lead to more of the same. Soon, we will find out. If the vote isn’t brutally stolen and the election happens to go to MDC-T or there is a run-off, the bleeding complexities of money and power won’t make it easy in Zimbabwe and it’s unlikely that the transition will be smooth. The country needs enormous changes before political and economic exiles who want to return can return. Just reforming the security sector seems an almost insurmountable challenge. Then, there’s the economy and the influences that come with it. And yet some people are certain there will be change.
For me, these are the elections of those songs we used to dance to in varsity. Tsvangirai, Mugabe and the other politicians and generals can go jump as far as I’m concerned.
If this truly is going to be a historic moment, it needs to impact on people’s lives. It has to help them live – to feel the dignity of work, to feel a sense of belonging, to put bread on the table, to focus on family and love rather than health issues and service delivery, to be safe. The many Zimbabweans who I’ve been privileged to know have dignity. Their country deserves the same. DM
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Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
Dave Grohl once tried to quit Nirvana after overhearing Kurt Cobain call him a "shitty drummer". Their manager convinced him to stay.